Leathers, Vendors, and Bears—Oh My!

Two unique conventions turned heads this weekend

Chicago is the host to several conventions throughout the year; the Chicago Auto Show, the All Candy Show, and the National Restaurant Association are just a few examples.

But this weekend, there were two internationally-recognized groups in town that you may not know about, despite their unique appearances.

Now in its 31st year, International Mr. Leather took over downtown Chicago this Memorial Day weekend. Over 15,000 men and women from around the world gathered at the Hilton Chicago on Michigan Avenue to peruse and discover all things leather, rubber, and latex.

Dressed in everything from a simple leather vest to an all-out head-to-toe outfit, IML attendees can sometimes be visually shocking.

But once you get past that initial hurdle, you'll find that the leather community is just as friendly and 'normal' as anyone else. The muscular, hairy man in leather boots and straps might look like he came out of a dark alley somewhere, but he is more than likely an accountant back home. And that dominatrix with a whip in her hand? During the week, she's a barista at a coffee shop, where she whips frappuccinos.

IML consists of several events and contests, and the namesake competition would likely remind you of a Miss America contest. The 50 to 60 representatives from several countries fall into multiple categories, are interviewed with interesting questions, and are awarded with titles and sashes. Only, instead of swimsuits, there are jockstraps, and contestants are encouraged to be gruff and "manly" rather than petite and feminine.

The most popular event of the weekend is probably the vendor market, which is open to the public for a small admission fee. Every fetish item you've ever imagined (and probably several that you didn't even know about) is located there. Many even include demonstrations.

Along with the leather crowd, the Bears were also in town this weekend. And we're not talking about football.

Hundreds of homosexual, hirsute, and husky men—affectionately known as "bears" and "cubs"—flocked to the Crowne Plaza Chicago Metro in Greektown for Bear Pride 15.

The Bear community celebrates those men who do not fall into the stereotypical image of gay men. Their bulk might consist of muscle or belly, and many "bears" look like they actually could be on a football team. Instead of Eric McCormack from NBC's popular Will & Grace, a "bear" would look more like Greg Grunberg from NBC's Heroes.

For four days, these burly, bearded gentlemen took to the streets of Chicago, including the popular gay-oriented bars in Lakeview, the Double Door Nightclub in Wicker Park, and Vision Nightclub in River North.

Both events have concluded by now, and all of their attendees have walked away from Chicago with memories of fun and frolic. In all likelihood, Chicagoans who witnessed their presence may have a few interesting and memorable stories to share as well.

If you want to see more clearly what IML is all about, check out the slideshow below.

Matt Bartosik is the editor of Off the Rocks' next issue and a "between blogs" blogger.

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